Minutes after Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard and chief of staff Craig Latimer cut the ribbon on the elections staff's new regional office in Riverview, a 72-year-old man walked through the doors and registered to vote for the first time in his life.
Watching that new voter add his name to the system underscored their belief that two new regional offices will bolster the supervisor's primary objectives.
A South County office (10439 Gibsonton Drive) and a Northwest office (12022 Anderson Road) opened this month, allowing residents to register, request vote-by-mail ballots and update names, addresses, signatures and party affiliations.
I'll champion any effort that provides voters greater access and, hopefully, gets more people to vote.
But in an age in which almost every government expenditure falls under scrutiny, some may wonder if the office needed to spend tax dollars on outreach centers. Lennard, however, said costs are being minimized.
"We're still within our budget," Lennard said. "The personnel working here would be working either at County Center or the Gilder Service Center (in north Brandon). When they aren't helping customers here, they will be answering e-mails through votehillsborough.org, just like they would at County Center or the Gilder Center.
"Basically, it's a call center. We outsourced. But instead of outsourcing overseas, we outsourced to Riverview."
The only added expense incurred was for leasing the space, Lennard said.
The immediate benefit of the regional offices is that it helps people avoid having to drive downtown or to the Gilder Center. For South Shore residents, a trip to the Gilder Center ranges between 18 and 44 miles round-trip.
The locations, however, were picked for reasons beyond short drives. The Riverview office, in the Riverview Town Center on Gibsonton Drive and U.S. 301, sits along a major corridor that runs in and out of FishHawk Ranch. Latimer noted that community doesn't have a public library where the public can pick up voter registration forms.
The same could be said for northwest Hillsborough, with no public library in the immediate vicinity of Odessa and Lutz. Drivers in that region face a round-trip drive of 26 to 52 miles to County Center, plus the challenge of paying for parking in downtown Tampa.
While many of the services provided can be accessed online, Latimer said that not everyone has a computer, and the office must take generational and cultural factors into consideration. That's a concern expressed by Sun City Center residents who already have come to the new Riverview office.
"Some people want to communicate face-to-face," Latimer said.
The regional offices also will be used for poll worker training, providing additional savings to volunteers who won't have to drive as far.
While the regional offices appear to be a good idea, the supervisor must strive to get more people to actually vote.
Lennard said the Help America Vote Act will help fund young adult outreach initiatives, but he also encouraged older adults to overcome the cynicism or apathy.
"We have to get over this idea that it doesn't matter," Lennard said. "It does matter. You can really change things if you exercise your right to vote.
"We have to get to a point in America where we can pull together regardless of political affiliation and participate. We need to send a message that every vote does count."
The message has been sent before, but if we must send it again, so be it. We can't do too much to promote one of our most precious freedoms.
That's all I'm saying.